Thursday, July 17, 2008

BETTY LOU, THE DREAM GIRL

From the team of Lida Larrimore Turner (book and lyrics) and RM Stults (music) comes BETTY LOU THE DREAM GIRL (1928), which has uncredited cover art and handlettering that appears to be the work of Donn Crane. Despite its lurid (and somewhat bizarre) cover image, this is a three-act comedy about a twenty-year-old whose step mother has decided to marry her off to the richest bidder in order to save the family fortune.

BETTY LOU. I've never seen him, but I can tell. He'll be elderly, addicted to dyspepsia and pills, and enormously wealthy. That's the kind mother always selects. There was the Higgins person: a good sort, but he would chuck me under the chin -- and why will fat men past fifty wear knickers? And the tin-can king with a home in Palm Beach, three yachts, and chronic indigestion. He sat with me in moonlight and talked about his income tax! I ask you, isnt there any romance left in the world?

At the same time, her brother has to tolerate his wife's hair-brained schemes to make cash quick -- she's hit on the idea of selling an antique china cabinet, but doing so by suggesting that hidden somewhere in it are the lost jewels of a recently-deceased, terribly rich old woman.

We then meet Mr. Brooks, the latest suitor for Betty Lou's affections -- except, of course, he isnt any Mr. Brooks but instead a petty thief who goes by the name "Gentleman Jim". Annie, who's a maid in the Pendleton household, recognizes him immediately, but he swears this is his last job and offers to give her a cut if she'll help. She refuses: at one time she worked with him, but now she's gone straight. Still, she wont say anything.

Mrs. Pendleton takes "Brooks" to meet Betty Lou, but instead of the twenty-year-old debutante, they find her dressed and acting like a nine-year-old, in a short gingham dress, bloomers, and a hair ribbon, swearing to one and all that she's way too young to even think about marriage.

(Okay, let's think about this: her many friends know it's her in bloomers. Her mother knows it's her in bloomers. Her brother and sister-in-law know it's her in bloomers. But for some inexplicable reason, Brooks thinks she's nine years old. Why do I see Kirstin Chenowyth playing this?)

Still more complications: Tom has brought home an old college friend, Bob Sherwood. Betty Lou takes one look and falls hard and fast -- but he, like Brooks, thinks she's nine or ten, not a grown woman. Bob, for his part, fell in love with Betty when he saw a picture of her in Tom's dorm room, but he's never met her. He's apparently painfully shy when it comes to girls... but (again, inexplicably) he has no problem whatsoever talking to this "little girl" about her "older sister" - and in a scene that's borderline creepy, Bob looks at "little sister" and sees a lot of his beloved Betty Lou in her (well, they *are* supposed to be sisters, right?) and... well, you can imagine how awkward that scene would be today.

And there's more: Bob's looking for a deed to land that (somehow) he could sell to the railroad for a tidy profit. (I say "somehow" because he's not related to the now-dead old woman who *did* own the land, but he figures it's his to sell -- only in the world of operetta...). "Younger sister" offers to help him realize his fortune by showing him a secret drawer in the china cabinet -- sadly, it turns out to be empty. He's even more despondent that he'll never be able to support his Betty Lou, but "younger sister" tells him not to worry, that Betty Lou would love him anyway -- and then ensues an even creepier scene between Bob and the girl he thinks is nine years old. With the two of them on a loveseat and his arm lovingly around her, the curtain falls on Act Two.

Eww.

Act Three is that evening. Mrs. Templeton has decided to hold a masquerade party. Betty Lou has abandoned her little girl clothes and shows up in a serious party dress. While everyone else goes out to dance on the veranda, she stays inside, sad and despondent, fondling an unloaded pistol she's taken from one of the other party-goers. Brooks and Annie show up, attempting to find the rich old woman's jewelry. Betty Lou, relieved she doesnt have to marry him, holds them both at gunpoint while sentencing Brooks to life imprisonment in New Jersey as Annie's husband.

BETTY. I hope you'll be happy. Somehow tonight I want everyone to be happy. Send me some radishes.

Judge Betty continues apace, now sentencing Bob to marry her (at gun point, no less! -- and remember, this is the first time he's seen when she wasnt nine). She has the deed to the land (which *was* hidden in the cabinet after all), which means now they have enough cash to start life together.

Oh, and the cabinet... along with Brooks and Annie and Tom, a *third* man has snuck into the house to see the cabinet and offers to buy it right then and there, providing more than enough cash for Mrs. Pendleton and Tom and Lola and Bob and Betty to all live happily ever after. Who was he? No freaking idea. He just shows up, gives her a check, and leaves. "We think he might have been Santa Claus!" With much singing of "Betty Lou, I love you", the curtain falls.

Well.

No doubt about it, the early scenes between Bob and Betty Lou are just plain... eww. He's twenty. She's nine. He's romancing her. She's nine. He's on his knees before her to show how he'd propose to her older sister. She's nine. Okay, not really... but he thinks so, and isnt that all that matters??

Gah. I want to take a shower.

Musically, it's definitely a product of the time. The big dance number in Act Three is a fox trot, but there's others in Act One for the dancing chorus (Betty's friends from college) that suggest things like the Lindy Hop. Everyone's very rich and very good looking and no one's really bad, just mis-directed... and it's 1928. This thing had a bit of a shelf life (It's still advertised in catalogues from the late 30s), but I cant help but wonder how it would have played during the Depression. For all their characters' innocence, there's a lot of scheming going on, and it wouldnt take much to turn this bland little comedy into something far darker as a commentary about the idle rich who make their money by theft -- either literally, in the case of Brooks, or through deceit, as is the case of Bob. It's a strange little work when you go deeper down its rabbit hole. I cant help but think that the creators were aspiring to write something in the vein of Noel Coward, but...

I mean...

She's nine.

Eww.

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